If you have ever read anything about Steve Jobs, you must have heard his famous line, “Stay hungry, stay foolish.” The psychologist Carl Jung emphasized that the fool was the precursor to wisdom. This idea has been articulated in the Bible and other ancient texts.
In mythological stories, this is called the call to adventure, and when the hero refuses the call, he is met with horrific consequences. In Biblical stories, the call to adventure happens to people who are in late age, and are imperfect, and have taken too long to leave their homes. The motif of these myths is always the same. It is better to go out into the world and explore opportunities than rot away at home.
In the story of Jonah and the Whale, we see this idea emerge through Jonah’s refusal of God’s call to adventure.
Jonah and the Whale
There was a chaotic city of sinful people. God tells Jonah to help them see that they are stupid and wrong, but Jonah refuses, he gets on a boat and escapes. But then he is caught in a storm with others in the boat. They realize that they are suffering because one of them displeased God, so they drew lots to throw someone over. But Jonah convinces them that it was him that God is not pleased with, so they throw Jonah overboard, and a whale swallows him.
God abandoned Jonah because Jonah abandoned his destiny. That is what happens in life when you abandon your call to adventure: chaos (the whale) eats you. Finally, Jonah reaches land with a halo over his head. He is an illuminated human. This archetype is: he who emerges from the unknown is illuminated.
The life pattern of being willing to be a fool, to go into the unknown, is called the “will to stupidity” by Nietzsche.
It is better do something badly than not to do it at all. It is better to be a fool at first, so that you can become a master later. Your first plan is never right, since most ideas are wrong, but then, after you act, your false glimmer of light shifts somewhere else as you approach it.
You get somewhere, even if it is not exactly where you wanted to go, you have still made progress from where you were. And as you progress, the degree to which you overshoot or miss your mark decreases dramatically.
That is because you will start to get rid of your false impressions about the world, you will get rid of the excess baggage that is holding you down. But that is not enough, after this excess baggage is gone, you are not left with enlightenment, but you are left with nothingness in its place. And so, you continue your journey in the desert, continually. You will keep failing, there is no way around it. But by having an ideal to aim towards, you will continually improve.
A series of failures is not an indication that you have failed in your mission, it is an indication that your mission is difficult.
The Hell You Know
Take relationships. Any relationship is both good and bad. If you were in a bad relationship, and it ended, then you are now better off, but since there was some perks to it, you are not only free and happy. You are now burdened by feelings of loneliness.
But by moving forward towards your ideal, even if it is imperfect, it is better than staying in the “hell you know” because you are afraid of what you do not know. To take the risk is better than trapping yourself in a miserable situation, just because it has become comfortable for you. The only way to constantly improve your situation is to be willing to be a fool, to be willing to have foolish ideals, but to always move forward with faith and courage.
The Reverse of the Fool
Let us think about this question in reverse. What would happen if you decided to not be a fool? In everything that you do, you will play it safe. In conversation, you will speak less. In sports, you will stick to the basics. In your career, you will only do what is common and standard. And in your relationships with others, you will avoid confrontation. Consequently, you will never fail completely, but you will never approximate your ideal. There is no running away from failure.
You can only choose how you want to fail. You must either be willing to fail your ideal of comfort or fail your ideal of competence.
Waiting for Godot is the situation that many men find themselves in, they have refused to confront chaos. They protect themselves by doing what is most familiar to them, they refuse the call to adventure, but by doing so, they stunt their own development, they remain children. They may say that they are waiting for the right opportunity, but even if one day the perfect opportunity does come along, they won’t have the ability to recognize it. The refusal to confront chaos does not get rid of chaos, it invites it in.
There is only one reason to avoid being the fool, and that is fear. When you fear social exclusion and judgement, then you will want to play it safe, and take fewer risks. The greater the fear, the more averse you are to playing the fool. This includes fear of failure. If you fail at starting a successful business, then you will have wasted precious resources and time. Fear is an understandable human emotion. And it is necessary for survival. What happened to our ancestors who had no fears? They went extinct.
It is not irrational to be fearful of the unknown, social exclusion, the future. There are times where being fearful is the wise choice, and being the fool is foolish.
A case can be made that in times of plenty, people become less risk averse, and in difficult times, people become more conservative. That may be true on a societal level, but on a personal level, there is a more powerful factor that you should consider and that is competence. If you are not competent at something, you should do it. If you are afraid of talking to people because you have undeveloped social skills, you should talk to as many people as possible. If you are afraid of starting a business because you don’t know anything about running a business, you should start a business immediately.
The more room for error you have, and the less developed you are, the more you should be willing to take risks. It is only by doing this that you become competent. When should you take fewer risks? When it has little or no effect on your competence. If you are good enough at business, you don’t need to take unnecessary risks. You can afford to bide your time and wait for the right opportunity. You have little to gain in terms of experience, and much to lose in terms of loss of resources such as time and money.
When you are a novice, the loss in resources is worth it, because you are gaining competence, which will have an exponential positive effect in the future. But there comes a point when the marginal utility of taking risks begins to wear off.
If you are in the beginning of your career, be reckless. Take risks, make mistakes, and make sure you learn a lot. That is when Steve Job’s dictum to “Stay Foolish” works. But do not stay foolish. At some point, you should stop being a fool and become more selective about your battles, because you will have less time and energy.